Preview: Phoenix Suns (7-9) at Toronto Raptors (3-13)

Toronto Raptors 101, Phoenix Suns 97

Suns

Raptors

Raptors

If Wednesday’s loss to Detroit was any indication, the Phoenix Suns have reached their first critical turning point this season. When in the past they’d rely upon the typical code of a young team — “improvement,” “learning to play with one another” and “building” all part of the lingo — that verbiage now goes out the window.

Alvin Gentry lost his team for the first time — at least, for the time being.

Friday’s game against the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre will be watched by the Gentry critics closely. The Raptors’ six-game losing streak and Phoenix’s seven-game winning streak against them in Toronto means little.

Long has it been known that Phoenix was susceptible to lose to any team in the NBA, but losing to a then-four-win team and by 40 points showed just how badly the Suns look when everything goes wrong. Now, it’s on the head coach to bring his troubled team back together, though Phoenix’s veteran leaders certainly must take matters into their own hands as well. Paul Coro’s article that touches on the leadership is spot on in asking if the Suns’ veterans have earned the respect in the locker room.

“Our professionalism has to be better,” Jermaine O’Neal told Coro. “I don’t know if we understand the importance of every game. As soon as we understand that and stop being so cool as a team, we’ll be a better team. We have enough talent to win. You’re going to have duds. The biggest thing you look for is ‘How do we rebound?’”

“Cool” is a fine word to label the Suns’ younger players, perhaps outside of Goran Dragic, who has recently experienced some tough outings as defenses have keyed on stopping him.

It doesn’t help Gentry that the two captains (Jared Dudley and Jermaine O’Neal) come off the bench, nor does it help that the oldest players (O’Neal and Luis Scola) do the same, nor that the two players with the most NBA experience (O’Neal and Telfair) are in the same position.

Either way it’s twisted, the leaders on the Suns aren’t the best players. And that’s not to say Gentry starting his younger players is wrong. It’s just a tough position to be in — the talent lies in the youth — and how Phoenix responds will be telling of if the younger players can buy into the grittiness that the bench brings. It’s a grittiness that to the eye must be found for the Suns to find respectability once again.

It’s still early in the season, and there are bound to be plenty more of these points in the year so long as the Suns don’t completely roll over.

That’s all that’ll be important tonight, win or lose.

Suns make money-back guarantee to fans

In a move that’s considered the first of it’s kind, the Phoenix Suns are offering fans a money-back guarantee for the Dec. 6 game against the Dallas Mavericks, reports ESPN’s Darren Rovell. It’s called “Satisfaction Guarantee Night” and first-year Suns President Jason Rowley told Rovell that fans will get their money back if they go home displeased.

Rowley said he was surprised to see so many happy fans after the Suns’ 112-106 overtime loss to the Chicago Bulls.

“After that game, I think we were all struck by the fact that so many people were leaving our building with a smile on their face,” Rowley, who took over as team president this summer. “Normally, when a team loses fans are down. But not with us. And that was an eye-opening moment.”

At first glance, this seems like a risky move. While that loss lent evidence that the revamped Suns could hang with a veteran team — taking punch for punch for the most part — the loss to Detroit was obviously the polar opposite.

And if you’d like to attend Satisfaction Guarantee Night, check out our contest with Crowd Seats that could earn you free tickets.

Three keys for Phoenix

Execute down the stretch. At this point, there’s not a soul in the universe who doesn’t think Phoenix can lose to any team, at any time, by any amount of points. The Raptors are 3-13, but NBA.com’s John Shuhmann pointed out that they aren’t as bad as their record indicates. Toronto has just the seventh-worst point differential and is 1-8 in games ending in differences of eight points or less. That says the Raptors can’t close games; the Suns will need to better them in that regard if they hope to pull it out.

Probably guard Andrea Bargnani. The Raptors’ big man sat out on Wednesday against the Memphis Grizzlies with an ankle sprain and is listed as questionable against the Suns. He finds himself as a key in the scouting report healthy or not, as Phoenix has had a terrible time defending big men who can stretch the floor, which is somewhat ironic considering their love for stretch big men. Whether it’s been Pau Gasol, Anderson Varejao or Chris Bosh, the Suns have yet to show much of an effort in defending such players. Bargnani is averaging 18 points per game and shooting 36 percent from three now playing alongside athletic center Jonas Valanciunas.

Get physical. Toronto’s roster oddly looks a lot like Phoenix’s. Mediocre talent, a relatively seamless talent gap between the starting unit and the bench players, and no star player. What the Suns do have is a front line that — as we’ve seen in spurts — can get at it on defense and on the boards. If they can’t dominate the Raptors up front, who can they dominate? The Raptors’ leading rebounder, after all, is point guard Kyle Lowry, who averages 5.9 a game.

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